Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53 - 59)




  53. Welcome to you both, and thank you very much indeed for sparing your time, and also thank you for sitting in on the previous session. I hope you picked up some interesting information; we certainly did. Is there anything you would like to add, by way of an introductory comment, however brief, about your situation?
  (Mr Ashley) Just briefly, if I can start, Chair; and thank you very much for the invitation to the Local Government International Bureau to attend. For those who may not know, we are the European and international arm of the Local Government Association in England and Wales, and we also look after the international affairs of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association as well. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, local government has become increasingly involved in the work of the United Nations, mainly, almost exclusively, in respect of sustainable development, Rio itself, Habitat-2 and Rio+10 coming up in Johannesburg. Agenda 21, the main document coming out of Rio, identified local authorities as one of the nine major groups, and I think a point that we would often want to make is that we are sometimes, in the United Nations, regarded as a non-governmental organisation, an NGO, but we would always want to insist that, while we are not national government, we are, nevertheless, a full sphere of government, with democratic legitimacy. Personally, I have been involved in the preparations for the Johannesburg Summit over, in a sense, a number of years; the work that I did previously, at the Local Government Association, in encouraging local authorities across the country to engage on Local Agenda 21, and then, in the last year, the preparations, starting last April and May, with the Commission for Sustainable Development, Session Nine, which gave into the first PrepCom, which was largely procedural, and then I have just, like Mr Charles Nouhan before me, come back from the second PrepCom, in New York, last week.

  54. Thank you very much indeed. Mr Ghagan, do you want to comment?
  (Mr Ghagan) Thank you. Just a few words, just to explain Business Action for Sustainable Development is a joint initiative, founded by the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, to give the business voice at Johannesburg and during the process.

  55. So it was created specifically for the Johannesburg Summit?
  (Mr Ghagan) Absolutely; entirely to do that, to bring the business voice through for that. In terms of my own role, like many, I have just come back from New York, but I also go back a bit before that, in as much as I am on secondment from DEFRA to Shell, to deal with this issue. Albeit my first secondment was when I was from DETR, at the time, to deal with Renewable Energy, and then was asked to stay on by Shell to deal with two aspects, one, to deal with Shell's internal preparations for the Summit and sustainable development generally, particularly internationally, and, two, to support and act as a Steering Committee member for Business Action, supporting the previous Chairman of Shell, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, who is the business leader that you were looking for in the previous session.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

David Wright

  56. An overarching question, if you like, to both of you. You have heard some of the evidence from our previous guests, if you like; what is your impression about the way the agenda for the Summit is shaping up, what issues would you like to see on the agenda, in particular, could you highlight perhaps two or three that you want to see, and, again, as others have done earlier, what do you think about the UK Government's preparations?
  (Mr Ashley) The United Nations preparation processes are rather strange things; they are very lengthy, it is fairly extraordinary to have to have three, maybe even four, preparatory conferences, effectively, of two weeks each, in advance of a major Summit, and we are pretty much at the beginning of that process. And, as I found with the Habitat Summit, five years ago, I think it crystallises, as time goes on; in the initial stages, it is quite difficult to grasp the key points that are likely to come out, that, I think, becomes clearer as time goes on. I think, as Mr Nouhan suggested, in the last session, that, by the end of the second week of this PrepCom, the rather difficult process that I think had happened over the previous, more or less, two weeks began to take shape, with a final document, which will be handed on to the next PrepCom actually to start engaging in negotiation. And I think, basically, all the elements that will need to be addressed are in that document, that the Chairman of the conference produced; the difficulty is, as was indicated, they are in a rather inchoate sort of form, the attempt at structuring them was removed, for particular reasons, there is just a very, very long list of particular issues and ideas and things that individual countries, or groups of countries, have wanted to include in the long list. I think the degree of prioritisation will actually have to happen when we get to the next New York PrepCom, and then, with rather more, I think, political oomph, in the Jakarta conference immediately prior to Johannesburg, where there will be a clear ministerial presence at the end. So I think the basic, main elements are there, they have been rehearsed pretty well, I think, this afternoon, in terms of poverty eradication, trying to make globalisation work for sustainable development, the issue of sustainable production and consumption, protecting the natural resource base, a whole range of issues relating to governance of sustainable development, and, perhaps most important of all, the encouraging emphasis which is being placed on implementation and action, rather than the rhetoric which many people felt was the legacy of the Rio conference. If there are two subjects that I feel that perhaps did not get sufficient emphasis, one would be, rather strangely, given perhaps the people's view of what the Rio conference was about, environmental degradation, in its various forms, and also health of human populations; but other than that I think largely they are there.
  (Mr Ghagan) Where do I start. Oh dear, I think is my comment on PrepCom2, and, as one who has gone back quite a few years on these previously, as Government negotiator, speaking for the UK, speaking for the European Union. PrepCom2 was slated to deal with the implementation; PrepCom2 did not deal with implementation, and that is a fundamental weakness, which we need, and preferably Governments need, to address. It is important to realise, there were three main outcome documents from the PrepCom. The first was the Chairman's Summary, that is, effectively, a report of the meeting, what was said, so we can put that aside, that is a non-negotiable text that the Chairman comes up with; almost by UN convention, it is not referred to again, you can try but you do not often succeed. The second, where the meat of the discussion took place, or hopefully will take place now, is called the Chairman's Paper, and that is the document we have been hearing about; but that is an almighty list of issues that are incoherent, have no great cross-referencing, and really need to be brought together, if we are to tie this to some form of agenda. If I can come back on that at the end, I will just finish describing, if I may, the documentation. The third one is a list of initiatives; now these are initiatives that people can buy into and report progress at the Jakarta meeting, so not at PrepCom3. In terms of the Chairman's Paper, what we would like to see is the Governments starting to crystallise the formal agenda for Johannesburg. We have heard particular wishes to concentrate on poverty eradication, and, by preference, I think, we would prefer to hear eradication rather than alleviation, the latter leaves it open to coming back, and we would rather it were chopped out, please. And energy and fresh water were the other two lead themes that were being talked about in New York, and certainly that were led out from the top of the table, from the Chairman and from others, including Nitin Desai, who not only is Under Secretary-General and Head of the Secretariat, he is also Secretary-General of the Summit. So I think there are areas that are there to be worked on. But the wish would be that those areas are boiled down to something that we can start to deal with, and then look at the implementation mechanisms behind them. It is a long response, but if I can just extend, with your blessing, Chairman. The business community prefers to look at ways by challenge, if you like, so if, for example, the Government negotiators decided that they were going to take the headline Millennium Declaration goals, which are all signed up to by Heads of State, and then set those as challenges, and then said, "Who is going to contribute to them?", the business community could work into that. We are waiting for the Governments to set the agenda.

  57. Do you think that the business community has got a much better form and structure for access though this time than perhaps they have had in the past? It is difficult probably for you to answer that, in your position, but is it easier for business to access the process than it has been; and do you think that promotes its own difficulties, because, clearly, within a large network of people debating this topic area, the sheer engagement of business is a problem in itself?
  (Mr Ghagan) I think it can be seen in that way, or it can be seen, and I am going to say this, obviously, as a major contributing factor. I think that we have to recognise, point one, that we are dealing with sustainable development, which means that you cannot do that by Governments alone, you cannot do it by NGOs alone, you cannot do it by business alone, we have to come together if we are really to attack these problems. Is business taking a seat at the table, then, yes, but I would hope that should be welcomed, because what business is saying is that whilst we will be promoting that work, and certainly the work for Business Action is focussed on trying to achieve partnership, what we have said is we want particularly to focus on real initiatives, that have four themes to them, if you like. The first one, that there is real partnership between business and another actor to that, it can be NGO, local government, government, etc.; that any initiative must address all three pillars of sustainable development; that, third, they must be measurable, to determine how these initiatives actually work; and, fourth, that they must be capable of being replicable. So moving forward with people, not just to demonstrate business is doing this, which we want to do, we want to show what business has achieved, cold and hard, since Rio, but also we want to show what we are doing, taking forward with others; and quite a lot of the initiatives that we will be coming forward with are actually started, we are delighted to acknowledge, by local government, by NGOs.
  (Mr Ashley) Could I just add to that. We would certainly very much welcome a larger input from business this time round. I think, if you look back at Rio, it was the conference in which local government, and I think the NGOs, gatecrashed the national government kind of party, and I think it is now time for business to do the same, and in that sense we were very pleased with the Prime Minister's announcement of the initiatives, the five areas, which very much focussed on the contribution that business could make. Certainly, we have been disappointed, in local government within this country, in terms of the engagement of business in Local Agenda 21 and, forgive me, the multi-stakeholder dialogue process that has occurred at local level; it has been extremely difficult, both at local level and at our national committee, over the last ten years, really to get serious commitment from business to that process.

  58. I have got a sense though that it is usually the big players, the big multinationals that are engaged; how are you trying to get the message down through business structures to people operating in local areas? Clearly, local government has got a role to play in its own communities, but how are you translating the message down from the summit, down into smaller businesses?
  (Mr Ghagan) It is vital to do that. The way that we are doing it is by harnessing particularly business input, the ICC reach is enormous, it reaches down from the big multinationals, down to the SMEs, spreads right across the globe, national committees in 130-plus countries, WBCSD, over 160 companies, whose core interest is, sustainable development, wishing to take these things forward, taking it forward through various industry bodies, bodies that we have, through things like the Global Compact, which, again, has labour representatives, NGOs representatives, on it, so playing out across the various fields that are open to us. And, yes, this is a change, we recognise that, that is what Business Action was formed to do, to try to promote and understand; the difficulty is always that the agenda is one that is set somewhere else, business has to understand that and play into it, and that is what we are trying to encourage. That is why we trying to encourage businesses to come forward with initiatives but under the four headings that I listed, working with local government, with national government, etc.

  59. Can I just finish my section, Chairman, with a specific question to you, Mr Ashley. There seems to be a consensus that Agenda 21 should not be up for renegotiation; do you agree?
  (Mr Ashley) I think there is virtual unanimity on the fact that, basically, Agenda 21 remains a powerful document and framework for action. Clearly, ten years have passed, and there have been some changes in emphasis, I think climate change is one that has clearly gone up the agenda in that last ten years, but, in general, I think, Agenda 21 stands as a perfectly fine framework, it is really now about implementing it.

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